Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow

Court Documents



No. 02–1624.
Argued March 24, 2004—Decided June 14, 2004

Petitioner school district requires each elementary school class to recite daily the Pledge of Allegiance. Respondent Newdow's daughter participates in this exercise. Newdow, an atheist, filed suit alleging that, because the Pledge contains the words "under God," it constitutes religious indoctrination of his child in violation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. He also alleged that he had standing to sue on his own behalf and on behalf of his daughter as "next friend." The Magistrate Judge concluded that the Pledge is constitutional, and the District Court agreed and dismissed the complaint. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Newdow has standing as a parent to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct his daughter's religious education, and that the school district's policy violates the Establishment Clause. Sandra Banning, the child's mother, then filed a motion to intervene or dismiss, declaring, inter alia, that she had exclusive legal custody under a state court order and that, as her daughter's sole legal custodian, she felt it was not in the child's interest to be a party to Newdow's suit. Concluding that Banning's sole legal custody did not deprive Newdow, as a noncustodial parent, of Article III standing to object to unconstitutional government action affecting his child, the Ninth Circuit held that, under California law, Newdow retains the right to expose his child to his particular religious views even if they contradict her mother's, as well as the right to seek redress for an alleged injury to his own parental interests.

Held: Because California law deprives Newdow of the right to sue as next friend, he lacks prudential standing to challenge the school district's policy in federal court. The standing requirement derives from the constitutional and prudential limits to the powers of an unelected, unrepresentative judiciary. E. g., Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750. The Court's prudential standing jurisprudence encompasses, inter alia, "the general prohibition on a litigant's raising another person's legal rights," e. g., id., at 751, and the Court generally declines to intervene in domestic relations, a traditional subject of state law, e. g., In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 593–594. The extent of the standing problem raised by the domestic relations issues in this case was not apparent until Banning filed her motion to intervene or dismiss, declaring that the family court order gave her "sole legal custody" and authorized her to "exercise legal control" over her daughter. Newdow's argument that he nevertheless retains an unrestricted right to inculcate in his daughter his beliefs fails because his rights cannot be viewed in isolation. This case also concerns Banning's rights under the custody orders and, most important, their daughter's interests upon finding herself at the center of a highly public debate. Newdow's standing derives entirely from his relationship with his daughter, but he lacks the right to litigate as her next friend. Their interests are not parallel and, indeed, are potentially in conflict. Newdow's parental status is defined by state law, and this Court customarily defers to the state law interpretations of the regional federal court, see Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 346–347. Here, the Ninth Circuit relied on intermediate state appellate cases recognizing the right of each parent, whether custodial or noncustodial, to impart to the child his or her religious perspective. Nothing that either Banning or the school board has done, however, impairs Newdow's right to instruct his daughter in his religious views. Instead, he requests the more ambitious relief of forestalling his daughter's exposure to religious ideas endorsed by her mother, who wields a form of veto power, and to use his parental status to challenge the influences to which his daughter may be exposed in school when he and Banning disagree. The California cases simply do not stand for the proposition that Newdow has a right to reach outside the private parent child sphere to dictate to others what they may and may not say to his child respecting religion. A next friend surely could exercise such a right, but the family court's order has deprived Newdow of that status. Pp. 11–18.

328 F.3d 466, reversed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which O'Connor, J., joined, and in which Thomas, J., joined as to Part I, post, p. 18. O'Connor, J. , post, p. 33, and Thomas, J. , post, p. 45, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Scalia, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Terence J. Cassidy argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Michael W. Pott.

Solicitor General Olson argued the cause for the United States as respondent under this Court's Rule 12.6 in support of petitioners. With him on the briefs were Assistant Attorney General Keisler, Deputy Solicitor General Clement, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Katsas, Patricia A. Millett, Robert M. Loeb, Lowell V. Sturgill, and Sushma Soni.

Michael A. Newdow, pro se, argued the cause and filed a brief as respondent.[1]

  1. Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Texas et al. by Greg Abbott, Attorney General of Texas, R. Ted Cruz, Solicitor General, Barry R. McBee, First Assistant Attorney General, Edward D. Burbach and Don R. Willett, Deputy Attorneys General, Peter C. Harvey, Acting Attorney General of New Jersey, and Gerald J. Pappert, Acting Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: William H. Pryor, Jr., of Alabama, Gregg D. Renkes of Alaska, Terry Goddard of Arizona, Mike Beebe of Arkansas, Bill Lockyer of California, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Charles J. Crist, Jr., of Florida, Thurbert E. Baker of Georgia, Mark J. Bennett of Hawaii, Lawrence G. Wasden of Idaho, Lisa Madigan of Illinois, Steve Carter of Indiana, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Phill Kline of Kansas, A. B. "Ben" Chandler of Kentucky, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, G. Steven Rowe of Maine, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., of Maryland, Thomas F. Reilly of Massachusetts, Michael A. Cox of Michigan, Mike Hatch of Minnesota, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Jeremiah W. "Jay" Nixon of Missouri, Mike McGrath of Montana, Jon Bruning of Nebraska, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Peter W. Heed of New Hampshire, Patricia A. Madrid of New Mexico, Eliot Spitzer of New York, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Wayne Stenehjem of North Dakota, Jim Petro of Ohio, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Hardy Myers of Oregon, Patrick C. Lynch of Rhode Island, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Lawrence E. Long of South Dakota, Paul G. Summers of Tennessee, Mark L. Shurtleff of Utah, William H. Sorrell of Vermont, Jerry W. Kilgore of Virginia, Christine O. Gregoire of Washington, Darrell V. McGraw, Jr., of West Virginia, Peg Lautenschlager of Wisconsin, and Patrick J. Crank of Wyoming; for the American Civil Rights Union by John C. Armor and Peter Ferrara; for the American Jewish Congress by Marc D. Stern and Norman Redlich; for the American Legion by Eric L. Hirschhorn and Philip B. Onderdonk, Jr.; for the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the United States House of Representatives by Geraldine R. Gennet, Kerry W. Kircher, and Michael L. Stern; for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights et al. by Edward L. White III and Charles S. LiMandri; for the Center for Individual Freedom by Renee L. Giachino; for the Christian Legal Society et al. by Gregory S. Baylor, Kimberlee Wood Colby, and Stuart J. Lark; for Citizens United Foundation by William J. Olson and John S. Miles; for the Claremont Institute Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence by John C. Eastman, Edwin Meese III, and Phillip J. Griego; for Focus on the Family et al. by Benjamin W. Bull, Jordan W. Lorence, Kevin H. Theriot, Robert H. Tyler, and Patrick A. Trueman; for Grassfire.net by John G. Stepanovich; for the Institute in Basic Life Principles et al. by Bernard P. Reese, Jr.; for the Knights of Columbus by Kevin J. Hasson, Anthony R. Picarello, Jr., Roman P. Storzer, Carl A. Anderson, Paul R. Devin, and Robert A. Destro; for Liberty Counsel et al. by Mathew D. Staver and Rena M. Lindevaldsen; for the National Education Association by Robert H. Chanin and Jeremiah A. Collins; for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs by Nathan Lewin, Alyza D. Lewin, Dennis Rapps, David Zwiebel, and Richard B. Stone; for the National Lawyers Association Foundation by Dennis Owens and Robert C. Cannada; for the National School Boards Association by Lisa A. Brown, Erin Glenn Busby, Julie Underwood, and Naomi Gittins; for the Pacific Justice Institute by Peter D. Lepiscopo; for the Pacific Research Institute et al. by Sharon L. Browne and Russell C. Brooks; for the Rutherford Institute by John W. Whitehead and Steven H. Aden; for the United States Senate by Patricia Mack Bryan, Morgan J. Frankel, Grant R. Vinik, and Thomas E. Caballero; for Wallbuilders, Inc., by Barry C. Hodge; for Senator George Allen et al. by Jay Alan Sekulow, Stuart J. Roth, Colby M. May, James M. Henderson, Walter M. Weber, Joel H. Thornton, John P. Tuskey, and Laura B. Hernandez; for Sandra L. Banning by ;;Kenneth W. Starr, Robert R. Gasaway, Ashley C. Parrish, Stephen W. Parrish, and Paul E. Sullivan; for Senator John Cornyn et al. by Mr. Cornyn, pro se; for Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne et al. by L. Michael Bogert and David F. Hensley; and for Congressman Ron Paul et al. by Richard D. Ackerman and Gary G. Kreep.

    Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for American Atheists by Paul Sanford; for the American Humanist Association et al. by Elizabeth L. Hileman; for Americans United for Separation of Church and State et al. by David H. Remes, Ayesha Khan, and Steven R. Shapiro; for the Anti-Defamation League by Martin E. Karlinsky, Martin S. Lederman, Steven M. Freeman, Michael Lieberman, Frederick M. Lawrence, Howard W. Goldstein, and Erwin Chemerinsky; for Associated Pantheist Groups by Michael C. Worsham and Dov M. Szego; for Atheists for Human Rights by Jerold M. Gorski; for Buddhist Temples et al. by Kenneth R. Pierce; for the Church of Freethought by Keith Alan; for the Council for Secular Humanism by Edward Tabash; for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., by Robert Reitano Tiernan; for Historians and Law Scholars by Steven K. Green and Steven G. Gey; for Religious Scholars and Theologians by Peter Irons; for Rob Sherman Advocacy by Richard D. Grossman; for Seattle Atheists et al. by Gary D. Borek; for United Fathers of America et al. by Mr. Gorski; for Rev. Dr. Betty Jane Bailey et al. by Douglas Laycock; for Christopher L. Eisgruber et al. by Lawrence G. Sager; and for Barbara A. McGraw by Ms. McGraw, pro se.

    Briefs of amici curiae were filed for Atheists and other Freethinkers by Dean Robert Johansson; for the Atheist Law Center by Pamela L. Sumners and Larry Darby; for the Common Good Foundation et al. by Keith A. Fournier and John G. Stepanovich; for Thurston Greene by Mr. Greene, pro se; for Joseph R. Grodin by Neal Katyal and Richard A. Epstein; and for Mister Thorne by Ronald K. Losch.